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21 April, 2009

The rain that had threatened earlier disappeared, and at 0400 I was at Sweline Boats watching as our Charming Duckling had her name of record replaced on the newly remodeled bow.

Ms. Aly, our new ship's pilot arrived shortly after dawn. Rem, who had done such a commendable job as our pilot for the past several months had to leave TLC for personal reasons. After serving as ship's mate, cook, and registrar for more than six months, Aly asked if she could take over as skipper. I was very happy to hand the keys over to her. Though larger than any boat she had experience with previously, she has spent her life--all 24 years of it--living on the lake and I felt very confident that she would rise to meet this challenge.


Lann Ly with the newly remodeled TLC-1

The trip across town was every bit the enterprise that it was the first time. We had originally planned for an 0500 departure from Sweline's yard, but our police escort overslept so we were delayed until after 0600. This put us in the middle of Phnom Penh's morning rush hour, so what should have been a one hour journey became two.

Once at the municipal port our boat was gently lowered into the Tonle Sap River, and her new roof was put in place.


It was rather embarrassing for all of us when the engine would not start, and after many a try we had to enlist the aid of a passing fisherman to give us a tow to the riverside mechanic's shop.

Those with experience in Cambodia will understand when I write "Cambodia Wins Again!", or "CWA!". Our boat sat at the mechanic's dock for over a week while awaiting parts that had been ordered two months previously and promised to be on site before our boat went back into the water. When parts finally did arrive...were they the right ones? Please! Don't ask.

"If not for the courage of the fearless crew..."
Ms. Aly (pilot) and Ms. Sopheap (accountant/office manager TLC)

On 30 April 2009 we started our engine and began our journey up the Tonle Sap River at 0430. I was happy and excited. I was also amazed at Aly's ability to see in pitch black darkness. We argued some over whether or not to run with lights on; Aly insisting that she could see better without them, and my arguing back that I was concerned about others seeing us. This made her laugh as though it was preposterous to think that we would be difficult to see. I guess everyone on the river has "cat eyes" except me.

It was a beautiful and a hot day. Travelling was smooth and without incident until we ran aground shortly after entering into Kompong Chhnang Province. On our journey down to Phnom Penh with Rem at the helm we had also run aground in the same vicinity...probably within 200 meters of this place.
My most useful talent sometimes is the ability to push heavy objects.

The river is quite wide here and rather stagnant at this point. Sand and silt have been deposited here since the river reversed its flow back in November.

In the end it took all three of us to push our boat out into a slightly deeper area. We tried to enlist aid from a passing fisherman, but he wanted $200.00--it was not a joke.
Sopheap

Aly.

Yes, the photos of Sopheap and Aly were staged once the boat was free-floating again, but the sweat on their brows is real. The TLC-1 weighs in at about six and half tons. That's a lot of inertia to overcome.

The river has other hazards and difficulties. Water hyacinths can completely block the way and will cover acres of water. Not only do they tangle the engine's prop, but a boat can actually rise up on top of a mass of hyacinths; leaving the propeller to cavitate (spin in the air). These mats of hyacinths move with both current and wind and constantly change their contour and pattern . Sometimes we could weave our way through less dense areas, and at other times we had to just wait and see if a channel would open up for us. If not, someone would have to sit on the bow and break a way through using an oar which is back breaking work.

A fish barrier near Kompong Chhnang Town.
The Tonle Sap River is seldom a single waterway, but is more a network of interconnected rivers and streams. Once it reaches the province of Kompong Chhnang it can seem to be a maze. We followed the route that our GPS and map told us was the best to take, but it didn't allow for the presence of river-wide fish barriers that often did not allow a boat to pass through. On two occasions we were forced to turn around and travel back in the opposite direction to find an alternative route, costing us much in time and gasoline.

The Port of Kompong Chhnang. There isn't anything noble about poverty. It does not build character. It's depressing and it smells bad.

We pulled into the Kompong Chhnang's municipal port, near the marketplace to take on more gasoline and ice. We then headed back to the river and pointed ourselves North, only to find our way blocked by another fish barrier.

Taking a side stream I sat at the helm while Aly took to the bow to measure water depth as we sought out the best channel

As we moved further and further away from Kompong Chhnang Town and closer to the lake we entered into the flood plain.

Last July, when the Charming Duckling was making her first trip to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh the waves and winds in this area prevented us from crossing the lake. Now this area is mostly dry land. By mid-July this area will again be under 1-2 meters of water as the Tonle Sap River swells and begins to fill the Tonle Sap Lake until November when the process is reversed.
.

Now this area is home to many migrating families who move to this area during the dry season to grow corn, soy beans and various melons and gourds.

The morning of our second day was hot, overcast, and hot. There wasn't a breeze to disturb the waters as we moved further along and closer to the edge of the lake.

As we approached the lake the water became more and more opaque, and the bottom came closer and closer to us.
We had to stop, probably twice an hour, to clear the prop of such things as; discarded fishing line, fishing nets, trousers, shirts, hats, and shrimp traps. Aly would not allow me to step out onto the engine's leg to do this as both she and Sopheap were convinced that it would break under my considerable weight. I wanted to be the gentleman, but...

Walking on water?

In a few more weeks, the trip from the edge of the lake to our port in Kompong Khleang will take about 5-6 hours. With the lake at its seasonal low point it took us more than 12. Though we had water beneath the hull, our prop was forced to plow through mud and muck. With no wind and no current, the trail of black ooze that we left behind marked our passage to the horizon.

It was hot. It was slow. It was miserable. We were outside of any cell phone coverage. Drinking water was running low and we travelled at just under 3kph--not enough to generate even a slight breeze, and through it all Sopheap and Aly kept their sense of humour and grace.

I will go anywhere in the world at any time with those two.


Somewhere close to noontime on the second of May we met with the taxi-boat that Sakhem had sent out to meet us and guide us into Kompong Khleang. We tied ourselves off, lifted our engine out of the muck and let ourselves be towed for the next two hours.


And here too, in another two months, there will be open lake above the tree tops. The water here had the consistency of a chocolate milk shake, but with it's own unique odor.
Here too migrant families set up temporary homes to farm corn and soybeans as well as other crops and animals.

This spirit house will be have water reaching to its top step by September.

The outskirts of Kompong Khleang town.

Back home.

The TLC-1 will be left here until the water rises at least another meter, perhaps a month from now, and there is sufficient space to turn around and run under our own power. In the meantime TLC will continue to providehealth services by renting water-taxis as we have done for the past two months.

Security for us is provided by the Commune Council of Kompong Khleang, and we've been promised that our Charming Duckling will have a good scrubbing once there is some clean water--probably in the form of rainfall.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Yours,
Jon

8 May 2009, the Buddha's Birthday.